It’s not easy to admit when we’re overwhelmed and need help. In fact, it’s such a hard thing to say that instead of asking for help, most of us either work harder or longer or job hunt.
Admitting work overload isn’t a weakness and it isn’t bad. It’s all in how you handle it.
If you find yourself with work overload and you aren’t sure what to do, consider taking these four steps.
Eliminate work overload step one: Every time you find yourself doing something that someone else could and should do, write it down, including how much time the task took. Doing this will create awareness of how much time you spend doing things that may not be the best use of your skills and experience. Then work with whomever you need to in your organization to align that work where it belongs. This practice isn’t to make you sound like an entitled prima donna. It’s an entrepreneurial way to approach your work.
The highest and best use of my time at Candid Culture is talking to current or future clients, writing new material, and delivering keynote presentations or training programs. I really shouldn’t do anything else. I can do a lot of things – like talk to vendors, count inventory, order supplies, and pack product orders – but none of those things add value to the business the way speaking, training, writing and spending time with clients does.
The business owner’s mantra is, “If I can pay someone less than I get paid to do something, I should do that.” Consider how you can apply that practice to your workplace, without appearing to be someone who won’t ‘wash windows.’ Meaning, you don’t want to be or appear to be someone who isn’t willing to do grunt work. Every job has it. But those lower level tasks shouldn’t be where you spend most of your time, unless your job description and annual goals say so.
Eliminate work overload step two: Watch out for and eliminate time suckers. This includes people, problems, and processes. If you find yourself in meetings all day long, consider which meetings you can skip or send someone else on your team. If someone in your office swings by daily to have personal conversations, tell the person, “I’d love to talk with you and I’m working under a deadline. Can we catch up later?”
Lots of people are at work longer than they need to be because of time spent talking with coworkers they don’t know how to ask to go away. You’re doing everyone a favor when you end conversations that are distracting. If you really want to talk about what’s happening with your coworkers’ kids, mother-in-law, and home renovation, go to lunch or happy hour.
Eliminate work overload step three: Sometimes doing 110% percent isn’t important. Notice when you’re doing more than you need to and when that additional work doesn’t add significant value. I.e., you put together a PowerPoint presentation and then spent five more hours printing and stuffing folders to put the presentation in. Next time, focus on the content and worry less about the aesthetics.
Eliminate work overload step four: Lastly, know when and how to ask for help. The last organization where I worked, before starting Candid Culture, was very fast paced and lean. I worked all the time and consistently felt overwhelmed. I eventually went to my boss to ask for help. I made a list of everything I was working on and asked him to rate each item based on how important he saw the project/task. He put an “A” next to the things that needed to get done first, a “B” next to the things that came next, and a “C” next to the things that were the least important. He told me to do the A’s first, then the B’s, and if I got to the C’s, great, if not, no problem.
The meeting was eye opening for me. I assumed he thought everything on my list was an “A” and that left me stressed with an inability to prioritize. Hearing how he perceived my workload reduced my anxiety and gave me permission to ease up on projects I’d previously considered timely.
Don’t suffer in silence. But do approach reducing work overload in a positive way. Rather than whining to your boss and coworkers, end conversations that you know are a time drain, limit work that doesn’t add significant value, and ask for help prioritizing when you can’t do it for yourself.
Most training programs about giving feedback focus on negative feedback, because giving negative feedback is hard and makes us uncomfortable. But most people aren’t any better at giving positive feedback.
Most of the positive feedback people get at work really isn’t feedback at all. It’s vague, fluffy, and unhelpful. Aka, Cap’n Crunch – sweet but useless.
“Great job.” “You’re awesome.” “You’re great to work with.” None of this qualifies as real feedback.
The purpose of positive feedback is to make people feel valued and appreciated and to get them to replicate a behavior. Telling someone, “great job” or “you’re doing great work” will make the person feel good (momentarily), but won’t tell her what to replicate. These phrases are vague, and vague positive comments come across as inauthentic at best and unhelpful at worst.
Here are a few examples of what I refer to as real vs. fake feedback:
Examples of positive feedback:
Fake feedback: “Great job.”
Real feedback: “You researched three vendors when making a proposal of who we should choose to manage our payroll operations. You included all the necessary information for us to make a decision and presented the information in a one-page table that was easy to read. Your work made it really easy to make a decision. Great job!”
Examples of positive feedback:
Fake feedback: “You’re really reliable.”
Real feedback: “I know that whatever I give you to do will get done the first time I ask and will be accurate. I don’t have to ask again or check your work. You check your work for typos and mistakes before submitting it.”
Examples of positive feedback:
Fake feedback: “You make my job easy.”
Real feedback: “Last week you noticed an invoice that didn’t seem accurate. You researched the invoice and got the mistake corrected before I even knew there was a problem. You make my job easy.”
Examples of positive feedback:
Fake feedback: “You’re awesome.”
Real feedback: “You always do what’s right for the company. Last week you called a vendor whose service has been spotty. You provided them with feedback and asked for their plan to improve their service levels. This added a lot of value to our organization.”
The guidelines for giving positive feedback are the same as giving negative feedback:
- Be specific.
- Give an example.
- Give feedback close to the time an event happens.
To give specific and meaningful positive comments, you will have to observe performance, and that takes time. But if you want someone to replicate a behavior, tell the person specifically what she did well.
Many organizations have moved from cubeland to open plan offices in which employees sit in rows of desks with no barriers between them.
There’s considerable research on the workability of open plan offices. Some of what’s written says that introverts do worse than extroverts in an open plan office. I disagree. I’d say that how a person learns/takes in information determines how well she’ll do in an open plan office.
If you’re a visual or kinesthetic learner who learns by seeing or doing, you’ll be less distracted by noise than an auditory learner who learns by hearing. Auditory learners hear everything and are easily distracted by talking, music, and other noise. Visual and kinesthetic learners often don’t hear distractions, so they do better in an open plan office.
Here are seven steps to make an open plan office a more productive environment:
- Schedule a meeting during which people sitting together can discuss the working environment they need to be satisfied and productive. Then facilitate a discussion during which the group creates 5 – 7 behavior guidelines each person agrees to follow when at their desks.
- Post the list of agreed-upon behaviors on a poster that is large enough to be read from any place in the work environment. Leave the poster up indefinitely.
- Give each person in the group permission to talk to individuals who violate the guidelines. This is very, very important. For the most part, employees won’t tell another person she is talking too loudly, eating food that smells, has too many visitors at her desk, listens to music or videos without headphones, or takes phone calls via speaker phone. People will suffer in silence and choose to work from home or in an empty office or conference room rather than speak up about the behaviors that frustrate them. Ask the group to grant each other permission to speak up when guidelines are violated. Giving each other permission to speak up will make future conversations possible – difficult but possible. Without permission and these agreed-upon behaviors in place, people will suffer in silence or talk about each other, not to each other.
- Ask everyone in the work group to take feedback graciously, responding with “thank you for telling me,” rather than with defensiveness.
- Two weeks after making the list of guidelines, get the group together to review the list and make any necessary changes to it. Discuss behaviors that were omitted, aren’t realistic, and are realistic but aren’t being followed.
- Then follow up by facilitating a monthly conversation during which group members give honest feedback about which guidelines are being followed and which are not, and problem solve as a group. These conversations aren’t a chance to embarrass or call people out in a group setting. If one person is violating a guideline, that conversation should happen individually.
- You will need a strong facilitator for the group discussions. The facilitator must tease out people’s thoughts, while making sure no one gets blasted in front of the group. Don’t let concerns that you know exist be brushed under the rug. Group members must openly and regularly discuss what is and isn’t working about their work environment, or frustrations will build and unhappiness and dissension will ensue.
It’s not too late to put these practices in place, even with a group who has been sitting together for a long time. Just schedule the conversation and explain why you’re having it. People will be relieved and grateful.
Working in an open plan office is challenging. It requires good communication and compromise. Don’t wait for problems to occur and frustrations to build. Have a conversation today.
You disagree with something someone above you said or did. How do you tell the person without actually telling him?
Lots of people think they can’t give direct feedback when talking to someone at a higher level. I’m here to tell you that that’s not true. The ability to speak freely has little to do with titles and more to do with the quality of your relationship. When you’re comfortable with people and have mutual trust, you can say (almost) anything, regardless of titles and levels. But that’s not the true purpose of today’s blog. So I’m going to stick to the topic at hand –what to say when you feel like you can’t say very much.
When you don’t have the relationship to say what you really think, manage up by asking a question instead. Engage the person in a conversation. At some point during the conversation, you’ll be able to say what you think.
For example, you question a decision but don’t want to overtly say you question the decision.
Here’s how the conversation could go:
“I wasn’t involved in the conversations to select our new payroll software. Can you give me a little history? What had us choose our current provider?”
“What software features were important when selecting the software?”
“What problem were we trying to solve that drove the need to make a change?”
“What do you like about the software we picked? What don’t you like?”
** Obviously this is meant to be a discussion, not an interrogation. Ask one question at a time and see where the conversation goes. You may ask all of these questions and you may ask only one.
The point is to gather more information. Manage up by seeking to understand before you express an opinion. As the conversation progresses, you might see opportunities to express your point of view.
Here are three suggestions if you’re going to practice the technique of asking questions as a way to manage up and eventually give feedback:
1. When you ask a question, come from a place of genuine curiosity. If you aren’t truly curious and asking questions is just a technique you found in some blog, it will show.
2. Watch your tone of voice. If you can safely add the words “you dummy” to a question, you have a tone issue.
3. Be patient. Asking questions may feel easier than giving direct feedback, but it also takes more patience and time.
As the conversation progresses, you might be asked for your opinion. Before saying what you think, remember, no one likes to be told that s/he is wrong. And the person you’re talking to likely had a hand in making the decision you’re questioning. Be careful not to judge.
Instead of overtly judging, consider saying something like:
“I think the new system has potential and also has some limitations. Do you want feedback as we use the system and get to know it better?”
“What specifically would you like feedback on? What are you not looking for feedback on?”
“What’s the best way to provide input and to whom?”
You can speak more freely when you have the relationship to do so and have permission. Until you have both, earn the right to give feedback by asking questions from a place of genuine curiosity. And only provide your point of view when you’re asked and are certain you have all the information to defend your position.
Most hiring best practices tell you not to hire people like you, and instead create diversity in your workforce by hiring people different from you. And that’s sort of true. You should hire people with different skill sets, experiences, and ways of thinking. And you should hire people with a similar work ethic and values, or you will consistently be frustrated.
Here’s what I mean: If you live to work and hire people who work to live, that’s a values difference. If your view of what is reasonable regarding expected hours worked is different from your employees, that difference will cause conflict. If, like in our company, you value open, candid communication, but your employees can’t or won’t speak honestly, that’s going cause frustration. And these values and practices won’t change. Trust me.
The question is how to identify candidates’ values and work ethic before you hire them.
Here are a five hiring tips to ensure you hire people who reflect your values and work ethic:
Hiring tips number one: Describe what it’s really like to work for you and your organization. Don’t sugar coat the bad stuff. Tell the truth. Candidates will find out eventually. If the negatives of the job are deal breakers, your new employees will leave anyway.
Hiring tips number two: Check references. I’m shocked at the number of hiring managers who don’t check references. You might think that references have been so well trained to say nothing incriminating, that making the call is a waste of time. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Be personable, make friends with the reference, ask innocent sounding questions, and references will tell you everything you need to know.
Hiring tips number three: Require candidates to jump through some hoops during the interview process. Ask candidates to invest time doing a little of the work they’ll do on the job (this is called a Practical Interview, something way too few hiring managers do) and observing people work in your office. If candidates aren’t willing to invest this time, cut them.
Hiring tips number four: Ask how many hours candidates want to work and candidate’s preferred work hours, and believe what they tell you. If someone wants to work 35 hours per week and your culture is 50 hours a week, no matter how much your new hire wants and enjoys her new job, she doesn’t want to work 50 hours a week, and won’t do so for very long.
Hiring tips number five: Don’t ignore red flags or your instincts. If you think, “I have some concerns, but let’s see. Maybe it will work out.” Run the other way. It won’t work out. You’ll end up cutting that employee after months of training and coaching, or s/he’ll end up cutting you. It’s faster, cheaper, and easier to wait to hire until you find the right person.
Hiring rule of thumb: Be slow to hire and quick to fire.
Regardless of who your company’s org chart says you should work with, people work with the people they want to work with and around those they don’t. One way to get people working with you (by choice) is to get to know your coworkers better, and I don’t mean personally.
Most people don’t know the people they work with very well. Coworkers often don’t know what fellow team members are tasked with doing for the company, their past work experience, education, or working style preferences. They often don’t know how fellow team members like to receive information, but get annoyed when they don’t return unopened emails.
If you’ve had any team building training with me, you know I advocate getting to know people better by asking more questions.
Organizations spend a lot of money on team building. Teams go bowling, out to happy hour, and have pot luck lunches, etc. All of those activities are fun and build comradery, and that’s important. But comradery and enjoying spending time together outside of work won’t help a team learn to communicate or overcome challenges.
If you’re really committed to team building and working well with people, ask more questions at the onset and throughout working relationships.
Here are five team building questions coworkers should be asking each other:
- What are your pet peeves? How would I frustrate you and not even know it?
- Are you a big picture or detail oriented person? Should I send you information in bullets or paragraphs?
- What are you best at doing? What type of work could you be doing that you’re not doing now?
- What are you working on now? What are your priorities for the next six months?
- What’s something I could do differently that would make your job easier? (You will survive the answer. I promise)
Your manager may coordinate an activity that gives your team the ability to ask questions like this, and s/he might not. Either way, ask the questions and be forthcoming if others ask you for this information. It’s not just your manager’s job to get your team working well together.
Your daily experience at work – how much you get done, how easily you get that work done, and how much fun you have along the way – is largely dependent on the people you work with. Don’t leave your working relationships to chance. Be assertive. Get to know people better. Ask more questions and offer information about yourself.
I’m going to admit that I’m terrible at what I’m recommending today – taking time for yourself. Often my weekly blog is something I too am working on, and this week is no exception.
Many of you know that I’m often in three to five states a week doing what I love most–working with all of you. When I get home, I often spend my evenings and weekends catching up.
While I feel I need to maintain this schedule to keep up, I’m aware that I can’t and don’t want to work all the time. So today’s blog is for all of us who don’t know how to turn it off and walk away from the laptop.
The value of downtime and taking time for yourself is well documented. There is a lot written on the need to take breaks to recharge, rejuvenate, and avoid burn out. The question is how to do so without feeling like something else is getting short shrift.
Here are seven tips for taking time for yourself:
Taking time for yourself tip one: Give yourself permission after a really busy few days or week(s) to take a day and do nothing. If you’ve been on the road for four days or worked really long hours, plan to sleep in on the fifth day. Don’t schedule early morning meetings and a full day. Know that you won’t be productive on day five anyway, so you might as well plan to do very little, which is what you’re likely to do anyway.
Taking time for yourself tip two: Plan a day doing non-work-related things you really want to do. When is the last time you did something you really love to do, just because? You’re more likely to dedicate time off to doing something you love than just lying around. But, if a day of planned recreational activities feels like another ‘to do,’ you’re better off doing nothing and not feeling badly about it.
Taking time for yourself tip three: Plan time to see one or two friends a week. I’ll admit that I have to schedule phone calls to catch up with friends and schedule time to see people I care about. Yes, I admit, this seems wrong. But do whatever it takes. If you have to put lunch or a phone call with a friend in Outlook for it to happen, do it.
Taking time for yourself tip four: Don’t feel badly about taking time off. I always feel guilty when I sleep until 11 am or do nothing until 3 pm on a Saturday. I still do it, but my enjoyment is diminished by my self-imposed judgment. Just do what you need to feel rested and refreshed. Stop judging yourself.
Taking time for yourself tip five: If you take a day off or sleep late, don’t work until two in the morning the next day to compensate. Doing so defeats the purpose and will put you in a hole the next day.
Taking time for yourself tip six: Watch where your time goes when you’re ‘working.’ I know that I squander lots of time while I’m ‘working.’ I allow myself to get distracted reading emails as they come in, texting, and chatting in our office. You could work fewer hours if you reduced these distractions.
Taking time for yourself tip seven: Decide what you really want your life to be about and what’s really important to you. Do you want work to be your focus or do you want an equal balance of friendships, family, and community activities? You likely have what it is that you really want.
If what you really want is a career-centric life, then just admit that and don’t judge yourself for it. But do take enough time off that you are rested, productive, and don’t resent your work.
Consider the things other people do that frustrate you. Now consider what you’re asking for.
You aren’t likely to get what you don’t ask for, but most people don’t ask for very much. We assume that the people in our lives will do the right thing without prompting. We’ll get the recognition and compensation we deserve at work because it’s the right thing to do. Our friends will remember our birthday because how couldn’t they know that’s important to us? And no one will come to our home empty handed for dinner because we would never do that.
If you read this blog regularly, you already know that I’m a proponent of setting clear expectations and asking more questions before problems occur. Consider what you want and need, anticipate what can go wrong, and plan accordingly before problems happen. Doing that sounds great in theory, but how does it work in practice?
Here are five ways to increase your job satisfaction:
Increasing your job satisfaction tip one: Be honest with yourself about what you need to be happy at work. Rather than tell yourself you won’t get what you need or try to convince yourself that you shouldn’t need something, just admit your needs to yourself.
Increasing your job satisfaction tip two: Share your needs with people who can help you get those needs met. Don’t make people guess. Chances are they won’t guess at all or will guess wrong.
Increasing your job satisfaction tip three: Don’t assume things will go well and just wait and see what happens. Instead, set clear expectations at the beginning of new projects and working relationships.
Here’s how that could sound: “We’re going to be working together for the next six months. Let’s talk about how everyone likes to communicate, what people’s pet peeves are, and the kind of information each person wants to receive.”
Here’s another example of how that could sound: “I’m excited to work on this project with you. There are a few things to know about me that will help us work well together and delivery timely results. I ask a lot of questions. Let me know if this frustrates you. I’m not questioning you; I just have a need to understand why we do what we do. And I work best with a deadline. I am happy to be available off hours, but you probably won’t hear from me before 9 am. You will get messages and work from me at night and on the weekends. Just let me know if you’d prefer I schedule messages to go out during regular business hours.”
People might give you what you need if you ask, but they likely won’t if you don’t. Train others how to work with you.
Increasing your job satisfaction tip four: Agree to talk about things as they happen. Don’t wait until you’re about to explode to speak up.
That could sound like, “I want us to work well together, and things will go wrong. Can we agree that we’ll provide feedback as things happen so we can make timely adjustments?”
Increasing your job satisfaction tip five: Renegotiate when you need to. If you realize you need or want something that you didn’t ask for, go back and ask. It’s never too late.
Here’s how that could sound, “We touch base about once a month and I’m realizing that if we could talk for about 20 minutes once a week, I’d be able to get more done. Can we make that happen?”
Job satisfaction and happiness at work (and at home) don’t just happen. The people you live and work with are not you and they don’t know what you need. Make a regular practice of identifying what you need, making those needs known, and then speaking up when things go array. You won’t get what you don’t ask for. But you will get whatever you allow.
Fourteen years ago, during my annual performance review, my manager said, “You had a great year. You rolled out 18 new training programs and got more participation in those programs than we’ve ever seen in the past. But you’re all substance and no sizzle. You’re not good at sharing the work you’re doing, and as a result my boss doesn’t know enough about what you’re doing and to support a large raise for you, so I can’t even suggest one.”
That happened to me ONCE, and I swore it would never happen again.
Too many people believe that if they do good work, the right people will notice and they will be rewarded appropriately. Part of this thinking is accurate. To be rewarded appropriately, you need to be doing good work. But the people in a position to reward you also need to know what you’re doing and the value you’re adding.
You need to find a way to share the value you’re providing without going over your boss’s head, sucking up, or alienating your coworkers.
Here are four ways to manage up while strengthening your business relationships:
Manage up tip number one: Ask your manager’s permission to send him a weekly update of what you accomplished during the week. This should be a one-page, easy-to-read, bulleted list of accomplishments or areas of focus.
Your boss is busy and most likely doesn’t follow you around all day. As a result, you need to let him know about the work you’re doing. Don’t make him guess.
Manage up tip number two: Periodically share what you’re doing with the people your manager works for and with. That can sound like, “I just wanted to share what my department is accomplishing. We’re really excited about it.” Ask your manager’s permission to do this and tell her why you want to do it (to ensure that the senior people in your organization are in-the-know about what your department’s accomplishments).
If you’re not sure who can impact your career and thus who you should inform about your work, ask your manager. She knows and will tell you, if you ask.
Manage up tip number three: Use the word “we” versus “I.” “We accomplished…..” “We’re really excited about….” Using the word “we” is more inclusive and makes you sound like a team player versus a lone ranger.
Manage up tip number four: If you work remotely and don’t see your coworkers and manager often, make sure you’re keeping people informed about what you’re doing. Likewise, if you work flexible hours – leave early, come in late, and work at night – people will assume you’re working fewer hours than them and will talk about it to whoever will listen. So while the hours you work shouldn’t be anyone’s business, people in organizations talk about stuff like this.
Don’t assume that people know what you’re doing or the value you’re adding to your organization. Instead, assume people have no idea and find appropriate ways to tell them. You are 100% accountable for your career.
People like certainty. We feel more comfortable knowing than not knowing. Not having an answer is uncomfortable. And looking for answers requires work. But sometimes knowledge is the enemy and the death to innovation in the workplace. If we know how something or someone is, there isn’t much of a reason to look for different and possibly better answers. But sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.
Companies want to be innovative, creative and agile. And that’s good. A lack of innovation is surely the route to long-term failure. For example, a company is at the top of its game. It sells a product that is better than everyone else’s and becomes complacent. Relying on its past success, the successful company creates nothing new for five years, while up-and-comers are creating better solutions. Before they know it, the successful company is obsolete.
On a smaller scale, but equally damaging to innovation in the workplace, is hiring and retaining employees who don’t regularly ask the questions:
- Why do we do this this way?
- Is there a better way to do this?
- What don’t we know that we don’t know?
If you want innovation in the workplace, you need to hire people who are curious and think critically.
People who are curious and think critically have a few key qualities. Curious and critical thinkers are:
- Not afraid to ask questions
- Not afraid to be wrong
Identifying these qualities in candidates is challenging. I’ve interviewed and hired many people who seemed quite self-confident and coachable during the interview process, but once they began working, it quickly became apparent that they were neither. If you want people who will execute an existing process that works, non-critical thinkers are effective employees. If you want people who will consistently challenge the status quo, you should let insecure and people lacking curiosity go, as soon as you see the signs.
If you want innovation in the workplace and want your organization to stay current and competitive you need to have employees who aren’t afraid to consistently ask the question “why. Incorporate status-quo busting questions into your meetings. Create rewards and recognize people who risk trying to fix a problem or create something new.
Train employees to ask these questions:
- Why do we do things this way?
- Why did this happen?
- What questions have we not asked?
- What would happen if we did _______?
As always, you get what you ask for. What are you asking for?